Mystery in the Sky

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was 32 and a bride of just one month when her warplane disappeared during World War II after takeoff from what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

Because of a misplaced flight plan, Gertrude Tompkins Silver of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) and the new P-51D Mustang she was ferrying in 1944 weren't even missed for three days. A search, including the scanning of Santa Monica Bay by military boat with new husband Henry Silver on board, failed to turn up any trace of the young pilot or the newly built single-seat pursuit plane she was to fly across the country for shipment overseas.

Months and years passed without any trace of the plane's wreckage in the deserts or mountains along the flier's route to Tucson, the first leg of her assigned journey.

More than half a century later, the fate of Silver--the only WASP still unaccounted for--remains an intriguing if obscure mystery. It is one that Hawthorne High School teacher and aviation buff G. Pat Macha wants very much to solve. And if he can do it before the 53rd anniversary next month of her disappearance, so much the better. He believes that the plane lies in shallow coastal waters off Dockweiler State Beach, probably no more than a mile from the former Mines Field runway.

"Her family would like to know what happened, so they can close the book at last," said Macha, 51, who, through a lifelong passion for airplanes and history, has become a widely recognized expert in "aviation archeology." In other words, aircraft wrecks.

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Macha's determination to find Silver's plane also stems from a desire to honor someone who gave her life in service to the country.

"As a history teacher, I feel it is my duty to do my bit. . . . I think the nation owes her, and we need to do what we can," Macha said.

Silver--listed in military records under her maiden name of Gertrude V. Tompkins--belonged to an elite group of about 1,100 female pilots formed during World War II. Until the program was dismantled as the war wound down, the women ferried new warplanes destined for battle in Europe or the Pacific; some also flew other noncombat missions, including towing aerial gunnery targets and flying as practice targets for searchlight crews, and serving as instrument instructors.

Iris Critchell, who was a WASP stationed at Long Beach when Silver began her fateful flight Oct. 26, 1944, recalled that hectic time. The United States was scrambling to build nimble, long-range fighters (called pursuit planes in those days) to protect its bombers from Nazi defenders.

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"It was a terribly important point in the war, and we were ferrying the planes as soon as they came from the factory," said Critchell, who now lives in Claremont. Some planes had been flown, at least for 10 minutes or so by factory pilots, but "many of the planes that we picked up had never been flown before. Fortunately, their reliability was very high."

Most of the planes that rolled off the assembly line at North American's factory alongside Mines Field were piloted by Long Beach-based WASPs. Planes bound for Europe were routed to Newark, N.J., in what was usually a three-day trip if the weather was good.

Although Critchell did not know Silver, who had been based in Texas, she heard about the disappearance.

"We knew there had been a search and that nothing was found. . . . There was so much going on during that time, and so many lives lost," Critchell said.

Almost five decades later, Macha, who grew up in Santa Monica and Lennox and now lives in Huntington Beach, wrote a guidebook to historic crash sites, "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California." The book is a compilation of his explorations since stumbling across his first old wreck as a teenage camp counselor in the San Bernardino Mountains in 1963. It caught the eye of a former WASP who had known Silver, and, eventually, some members of Silver's surviving family. Macha was hooked on the search project after those relatives approached him for help.

Using military records, newspaper clippings of weather conditions at the time and his knowledge of her plane, Macha has pieced together a scenario that aviation experts, Air Force historians and Silver's family think is credible.

Silver, who had a pilot's license before joining the WASPs, filed a flight plan and climbed into the single-engine plane's cockpit. She was cleared for takeoff at 4 p.m. and ascended into an overcast sky shortly after that. No one in the tower saw her departure, and the tower never had contact with her once she was cleared for takeoff.

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Macha believes that Silver met her fate within moments, that something caused her plane to plunge, nose-first, into the ocean.

She may not have been familiar with the then-new model of the plane, which had a fuel tank just behind the cockpit. When full, it could have shifted the plane's center of gravity, sending it into a low-altitude stall from which it could not have recovered, Macha theorized. Or Silver could have been momentarily blinded by the lowering sun as she broke through the cloud cover and then lost her orientation.

Macha hopes to find the plane with volunteer divers and the help of fishing boat captains or others whose sonar may already have picked up evidence of the wreck.

"It seems doable," Macha said of prospects of finding the plane after all these years. "It's probably in water that is only about 50 or 60 feet deep, maybe less."

Although the plane is probably corroded and covered with algae, it would still register on sonar. And although the letters painted on the fuselage would have long since disappeared, the identifying number plates embedded in several parts of the plane would still be legible.

Sacramento attorney Ken Whittall-Scherfee, whose wife, Laura, is the granddaughter of Silver's surviving sister, said he recently wrote to Air Force officials in the hope that they can help with documents that could verify what happened to Silver.

"This has been a fascinating family story," said Whittall-Scherfee, who became interested in aviation history even before he met his wife and heard about her lost great-aunt.

"It would mean a lot to my wife's grandmother to finally be able to know what happened, to get some resolution of the mystery."

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Elizabeth Whittall, 88, remembers her sister as a courageous woman who loved to fly and was proud to be so important a part of the war effort. Born in New Jersey to a prosperous chemist and a homemaker active in pioneering family planning movements, Gertrude Tompkins, the youngest of three girls, had a hard time as a child.

"She stuttered, and she had to work very hard" to overcome it, Whittall said in an interview from her home in Vero Beach, Fla. Gertrude attended a college in Pennsylvania where she studied horticulture, her life's passion--until she discovered flying.

"She loved to fly, and when she became a WASP, you could see her just glowing. She had finally found what she wanted to do," Whittall said.

Tompkins married Silver, a New York businessman who was also in the military, and the two planned to make a home after the war and adopt the orphaned daughter of one of his relatives.

Whittall said she is certain that her sister would have found a way to keep flying after the war. And she took some comfort from the fact that her sister died doing something she loved for a cause she deeply believed in.

Although Whittall firmly asserts her belief that the military did all it reasonably could at the time to find her sister, she is nonetheless grateful for Macha's efforts now.

"We were very close when we were growing up. And she's the only one [of the WASPs] who hasn't been found," Whittall said, adding that Macha's success "would close a chapter."

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